Thursday, December 9, 2010

Day for Night (1973)

Every so often, a motion picture will stake out a territory and lay eternal claim to it. Such is the case with Day for Night, a warm-hearted yet clear-eyed comedy-drama that persuasively argues, with ample evidence, that a movie set is the most magical place on earth.

The late, great Francois Truffaut’s Oscar-winning masterwork was not, strictly speaking, the first movie ever made about the joy of making movies. But it remains, decades after its Paris premiere, the yardstick by which almost every film on the subject inevitably is measured. Its very title, which refers to a process through which night scenes can be shot in daylight, continues to serves as critic-speak shorthand in reviews of everything from Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995) to Oliver Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) to Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001).

Truffaut cast himself in the central role of Ferrand, the affable, overworked auteur who’s trying to complete a sudsy romantic melodrama, Meet Pamela, within seven weeks at the Victorine Studios in Nice. The production is beset by mishaps and misadventures, some amusingly minor (a recalcitrant cat refuses to perform in a sight gag), some shatteringly tragic (a star dies in an auto mishap before completing a key scene).

At one point, an egotistically impulsive male lead threatens to abandon the film because his current sweetheart has spurned him. Desperate times call for desperate measures by a selfless team player: The American-born leading lady, still vulnerable after a recent nervous breakdown, nevertheless volunteers to keep her feckless co-star interested in the production by feigning romantic interest in him.

Throughout the barely controlled chaos, Ferrand maintains his calm, though just barely, by keeping himself focused on the end that justifies any means. Making a movie, he says, is like taking a stagecoach ride in the Wild West: “At first, you hope for a nice trip. Then you just hope you reach your destination.”

A nice touch: Ferrand sporadically summons in his dreams a fond childhood memory of the time he swiped Citizen Kane publicity stills from a movie theater lobby. As Truffaut noted in a 1973 interview: “There are directors who boast of never going to the movies, but myself, I go all the time. And I am forever marked by the films I discovered before becoming a filmmaker, when I could take them in more fully. If, for example, in the course of Day for Night I pay special homage to Citizen Kane, it is because that film, released in Paris in July 1946, changed both the cinema and my own life. Through the young actor played [in Day for Night] by Jean-Pierre Leaud, I am always coming back to the question that has tormented me for thirty years now: Is cinema more important than life?”

Unlike Meet Pamela, Day for Night brings out the best in everyone involved. The stellar ensemble cast includes Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful but emotionally fragile Hollywood star, Valentina Cortese as a fading leading lady who’s too flustered (and, quite often, too drunk) to remember her lines, Nathalie Baye as a frisky production assistant — and the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Leaud (a.k.a. Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s on-screen alter ego in The 400 Blows and subsequent sequels) as the callow, self-absorbed actor who repeatedly poses another question that Truffaut himself often pondered: “Are women magic?”

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